My thoughts buzzed, angry and mutinous: “I can’t make it. I’m going to die at 8 in the morning, slumped over a giant rock, legs churning uselessly, granola bar uneaten. I’m not taking another step. I’m finished.” I lurched to a stop and bent over, open-mouthed and drooling like an exhausted dog.
Friends had assured me that climbing a Colorado fourteener would be a thrilling experience, one that would change my life. I now realized, as my screeching lungs threatened to explode, that the promised change could be toting around an oxygen tank for the rest of my life.
My husband and I had started at dawn, carrying light packs with a minimum of emergency gear and walking briskly from the campground to the head of the trail we had chosen for our hike up Mt. Elbert near Leadville. The air pushed cool against my face; my steps stretched long and loose; my breathing flowed effortlessly — a silent, automatic companion. Feeling alive and invigorated, I flashed a grin at Joel. As we started the ascent, I began breathing through my mouth to accommodate my need for increased oxygen, smooth inhalations that tasted fresh.
The trail steepened. My breathing quickened and grew heavy, as though a doctor had told me to breathe deeply, again and again, while he listened through his stethoscope.
The trail drew up even more. The swoosh of my breath became a soft whistle on the inhale and a slight moan on the exhale. I slowed, became deliberate with my foot placement, wiped my face with my sleeve. Soon the path veered and revealed an incline ahead of at least eighty degrees — a zigzagging line of lightening. As I climbed, the sun-warmed air began to sob in and out of my lungs, each gasp fighting its own passage. My eyes watered. A ground troll seemed to have latched onto my feet, determined I shouldn’t pass. I promised myself that for every twenty steps I managed, I could rest. Step …huff … step … puff … step … huff.
An obstacle course blocked my way — large, sharp rocks requiring arduous steps up and over. Now my exchange of air sounded like a shrieking teakettle at full boil, my tortured lungs insisting that nothing in our sixty-three years of co-dependency had prepared them for this task. I considered discarding a tissue, thinking I would rather litter than carry the heavy thing another step.
I tried not to look ahead, but I did. And I saw. Soon we would be walking a vertical line, straight into the sky, in danger of toppling over backward, bouncing from boulder to boulder, wiping out unwary hikers below. I fastened my eyes on the toes of my hiking boots, double-tied, oppressive burdens, not at all like walking on pillows as the outdoor gear catalogue had promised. I concentrated my will: one step, now another, one step, now another. My breathing bellowed and squawked like a mangled accordion, a disturbing noise that accompanied each step until it reached a manic crescendo devoid of any rhythm. The stream from my eyes blended with the sweat running from my brow and the mucus leaking from my nose. My feet were dead.
“Good work, Ma’am,” a cheerful hiker encouraged as he glided down from the summit, “You’ve finished the approach and can start really climbing now. Great morning, isn’t it?”
My lungs shattered. My vocabulary turned ugly. I took another step.